Why Do Some Pages Rank Higher on Google than Others?

Everyone wants their respective web pages to rank No. 1 on a Google search engine results page. But what does it take to get there?

Ranking high on a results page requires more than killing it with keywords. It takes a systematic and strategic approach that considers page structure, HTML markup, site speed, and server performance.

If an institution is going to enhance its standing with Google, it should be prepared to connect the people creating content with those managing the web servers and code that delivers it. It’s time for the Marketing and IT teams to collaborate on how best to be found. The 2014 E-Expectations Report states it simply:

“Many students are no longer coming to the home page and navigating to information on academic offerings, but instead typing search terms related to programs of study and going directly to a department or program page.”

So what steps can colleges and universities take to ensure their department or program page appears higher than the competition?

Let’s look at an example.

An Examination of Academic Program Pages

Taking a queue from my 16-year-old self, my current-day college search most likely would start with the following entry on Google:

communications degree in st louis

The top result for “communications degree in st louis” links to the Department of Communication page at Saint Louis University (SLU). Two four-year, private institutions and a community college also appear on the first page of results. The University of Missouri—St. Louis (UMSL), with a reputable communication program, falls to the second page of results. With less than 6 percent of clickthroughs coming from page two and three, UMSL is not in a good position.

Additional searches with keyword variations—“communications programs in st louis,” “undergraduate communications programs in st louis,” “bachelor in communication st louis”—all yield similar results with SLU’s page consistently outranking the page from UMSL.

A simple examination of the pages might cause some head scratching.

With all due respect to Saint Louis University, UMSL’s page simply looks better. It features a more up-to-date design, provides clear calls to action, incorporates large-format photography, and presents a clear hierarchy of content.

SLU-screen UMSL-screen

So how did SLU nab the top spot and UMSL get relegated to the page-two hinterlands?

How Google Ranks Pages

To understand how one page gets ranked over another, it’s best to first understand what Google is looking for. According to the world’s most-used search engine, a Google-friendly site:

  • Gives visitors the high-quality information they’re looking for.
  • Ensures other sites naturally link to it.
  • Makes the site easily accessible through a logical structure.
  • Avoids deceptive practices like keyword stuffing or duplicating content.

Google makes clear that quality content is the most important thing website managers can do to improve their sites’ standing, since good content naturally attracts visitors and entices others to link to it. But both pages have “good content,” right? Let’s get more specific and examine what else Google sees on the example pages listed above:


Both pages incorporate communication in the page title:

  • Department of Communication : Saint Louis University College of Arts and Sciences : SLU
  • Communication at UMSL

Although both schools include the locator of “St. Louis” or “Saint Louis” in their names, only SLU has this information included in its page titles. There’s an opportunity here for both schools to add more detailed information. Most search engines don’t truncate titles until they hit 70 characters, meaning UMSL has 49 more characters to add keywords like “program,” “degree,” “bachelor’s,” or “St. Louis.”

Advantage: SLU

Most Common Keywords

Tools like SEO Site Checkup can help determine the density of keywords used on each page. Both pages included “communication” as one of the most common keywords and UMSL had the edge, incorporating “communication” 23 times as compared to five for SLU. Various sources, however, indicate a safe keyword density should range between 2-4 percent for targeted words and phrases.

Keyword density reflects the number of times a keyword appears as a percentage of the total text on a page. And at 5.91 percent density, UMSL may be seen as unnecessarily stuffing the page with “communication” as a keyword. The density of “communication” falls to 2.82 percent on SLU’s page, placing it right in that two-to-four-percent sweet spot.

Advantage: SLU


If one of the keys to creating a Google-friendly site is to make the site more accessible, an important asset to add is a sitemap. Neither SLU or UMSL has a sitemap associated with their respective page. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but even Google admits “a sitemap is a helpful tool that can improve the crawling of your site.”

Creating a sitemap isn’t a monumental task. Google’s provides guidance in creating a sitemap that could result in better search rankings … for both institutions.

Advantage: None

Site Speed

If Google cares about site speed (and it does), so should you. Research suggests 47 percent of users expect a web page to load in under two seconds, with 40 percent of those users abandoning a page if its load time is three seconds or more.

Tools such as the Pingdom Website Speed Test can analyze overall page size, server requests, and load time. Both pages loaded in less than three seconds, but both sites also made made more than 50 http requests, which can slow down page loading. UMSL was the only one to employ GZIP compression, a process of encoding information using fewer bits that reduced the size of its HTML by 79 percent.


Advantage: UMSL

Social Activity

Likes, tweets and Google +1s all act as signals to search engines as to where the good content lives. While these social signals themselves may do little to influence rankings, the correlation between shared content and ranked content remains high. SharedCount is a great site to track this activity.

SLU’s page was shared on Facebook four times (with one comment), posted to Twitter twice, and linked once on Google+. UMSL’s page registered zero social shares.

Advantage: SLU

Established Links

When other sites link to content, they essentially are vouching for its content. So it stands to reason the more people that link to content, the better that content will rank for relevancy and authority. The challenge is that backlinks are “off-page” SEO, often out of the control of a site manager.

Using Moz’s Open Site Explorer, we see SLU’s page enjoys established links from five root domains (unique domains pointing to the page) and 307 total links (including both external and internal link traffic). Links from the University of Rhode Island and Rowan University domains adds to the page’s credibility, at least in the eyes of Google. UMSL’s page shows links from only one root domain and six total links.

Advantage: SLU

Possible Penalties

While all the above items might highlight small differences between SLU and UMSL’s respective pages, perhaps the greatest difference between the two is the potential penalization against UMSL for duplicate content.


Google does not like to index content twice.

SEO Site Checkup shows that http://umsl.edu/academics/degree-pages/Communication.html and http://www.umsl.edu/academics/degree-pages/Communication.html do not resolve to the same page, even though they should. Add in a similar page at http://www.giveto.umsl.edu/academics/degree-pages/Communication.html, and one can see how Google might be confused about where to assign page rank around UMSL’s communication degree programs.

Setting a permanent domain, installing 301 redirects, and specifying canonical URLs are all ways to alleviate this potentially penalizing situation.

Advantage: SLU

There’s More to Ranking High than Keywords

Google is never going to reveal the exact formula of its proprietary algorithm, but we have enough research to know a successful SEO effort is so much more than using the right keywords.

When Google says creating good content is the key to ranking well, it means it.

Good content means:

  • The words on a page clearly answer users’ questions
  • More links to build your authority.
  • Good code, optimized to increase page performance.
  • Singular content that isn’t duplicated elsewhere on the same server.

Create good content, and reap the higher rankings that follow.

This post appeared originally on the mStoner blog. mStoner is a marketing and advertising firm exclusively serving higher education.


  1. Samrat on September 29, 2015 at 4:57 pm

    Google seems to have downgraded the Linking to your website. Social media engagement score vs search is possibly mostly got to do with how much of Google+ the site really uses. Are these true?
    One associate mentioned that a new algorithm called Pigeon was launched late last year. Do write more about this if you find some information.

    Found your tips very useful. Great write up!

  2. Patrick Powers on October 4, 2015 at 1:27 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Sam! And I’d like to think Google is sophisticated enough to track most (if not all) social sharing. With the trending down of Google+, I would assume public shares on Facebook, Twitter, etc. may be stronger indicators for this category. Although it’s important to remember this is only one category.

    Recent updates to the Google algorithm seem to be focused more on delivering mobile-friendly results, so if you’re investing any time on SEO I’d focus it there. I’ll be sure to write about it soon!

    I hope all is well in Thailand.